Ask a Poet: Henri Cole

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Welcome to the Ask a Poet blog series! Leading up to the 2018 Dodge Poetry Festival, we will be putting the spotlight on poets you can see at #DPF18, October 18-21. Learn more about a new Festival Poet every Wednesday and Friday, presented in no particular order.

Today, we’re spending some time with Henri Cole!


HC1Hey Henri! What’s new with you?
I have just published a hybrid memoir [Orphic Paris] about my time in Paris. By “hybrid,” I mean that the book combines journal writing, prose poetry, and photography. On a more personal level, I have been living in California near the desert which I love–not the season of fires, but the extreme beauty of the Earth.

What are you currently reading?
I read a lot, like a snake eating mice. I loved Eileen Myles’s memoir Afterglow, about her beloved dog Rosie. She is marvelously original. Also, I just reread Marilyn Chin’s poems in Rhapsody in Plain Yellow. Her in-betweenness—born in Hong Kong, raised in Portland, Oregon; never fully Chinese, never fully American—is often her subject. I think in-between is a good place for a poet. This is also true in Natasha Trethewey’s collection of poems Thrall. Her mother was a black American and her father was a white Canadian, and sometimes Trethewey’s poems explore this in-between ancestry. Her poems also originate in artworks where black and mulatto figures appear.

What books of poetry/poets do you recommend to a new reader of poems?
I would recommend Frank Bidart’s Desire, Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris, Czeslaw Milosz’s Road-side Dog, Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song, Marilyn Chin’s Rhapsody in Plain Yellow, C. P. Cavafy’s The Complete Poems, Anne Carson’s The Autobiography of Red, Sharon Olds’s The Dead and the Living, Derek Walcott’s The Star-Apple Kingdom, D. A. Powell’s Chronic: Poems, and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and Colossus. These are just some highly subjective and random recommendations.

When did you first discover poetry? What poets made you want to write?
I discovered poetry when I was 20. I was a shy, gay young man living in the South. Also, I was raised in a military and catholic household. Suddenly, I had things to say when I put pencil to paper.

What is the role of poetry in today’s world?
I think being a poet in the world opposes the very nature of the world, which is driven by monetary gain. There is no monetary gain in writing poetry. Still, there is value in it as a record of what is in our souls—love and hate, empathy and anger, and all the rest of the emotions that overwhelm us every day.

Tell us about your favorite experience reading for an audience.
Last year, I read in a medium-security prison in Southern Illinois. The reading was in a gymnasium with about fifty attentive inmates. Afterwards, each prisoner shook my hand in gratitude. It was very moving.

Have you ever written anything you were afraid to share?
Yes, some poems embarrass me. The poems that embarrass me the most tend to be about intimate love-life stuff. Disappointments and failures in love, etc. But when I am writing these poems, I actually feel free. The poet must remain free. You can’t write poetry with a gun pointed at your head.

Henri Cole was born in Fukuoka, Japan.  He has published nine collections of poetry, including Middle Earth, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.  He has received many awards for his work, including the Jackson Prize, the Kingsley Tufts Award, the Rome Prize, the Berlin Prize, the Lenore Marshall Award, and the Medal in Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His most recent collection is Nothing to Declare, and a memoir Orphic Paris was published by New York Review Books this spring.  He teaches at Claremont McKenna College and lives in Boston.   

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